I’ll level with you: this has been an unusually weak month for new shows. Maybe the networks ran out of steam after unveiling some actually-pretty-decent new comedies in January, or maybe some release dates got shuffled to avoid conflicting with an Olympics that very few people ended up watching. The only thing that is certain to me, I tried a few dozen new February releases and was only impressed by one. Severance. (NB: I’ve had to recuse myself from weighing in on the noteworthy docuseries Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye West TrilogyYou can watch it on Netflix. It’s produced by TIME Studios, which would be a conflict of interests. This roundup is made up of shows that I enjoyed, even though there were some obvious flaws. Criticism is, of course, always subjective—and never more so than in this particular list.
The Girl Before (HBO Max)
One architect creates an amazing minimalist house in London, and lets it out to renters who comply with his specifications at a fraction of the market rate. They can’t hang pictures, make messes, have children—and they must consent to monitoring by elaborate smart-home devices. Two women share the same space in parallel time frames. Emma (Jessica Plummer), shares the space with Simon (Ben Hardy). Jane (Gugu Mahata-Raw) arrives in the apartment three years later and quickly makes an important discovery about its structure. They share an eerie resemblance and have both recently been through acute trauma.
It’s a premise worthy of Hitchcock, and the Master of Suspense’s influence is indeed palpable in this four-part adaptation of J.P. Delaney’s best-selling novel The Girl Before. While the last act doesn’t rise to the level of earlier episodes, stellar performances further elevate this chilly, cerebral, sophisticated psychological thriller. Mbatha-Raw achieves the perfect balance between strength and fragility. David Oyelowo’s equally captivating as the architect is his serene veneer that makes it difficult to see what he intends. The interiors, it may be obvious, are breathtaking.
Invention of Anna (Netflix)
Shonda Rhimes‘ latest Netflix megahit has divided audiences, and you know what? I get it. Many of the criticisms are common to me. Too many episodes. Acting is inconsistent. Rhimes is too generous to her subject, the “Soho Grifter” formerly known as Anna Delvey, while the portrayals of her victims can be egregiously nasty. Journalism doesn’t work like that. Something something girlboss.
And yet… there’s a lot about the show that I enjoyed. Julia Garner played the role of Anna, the intense and chameleonic, and although there were some bad performances, it was an excellent performance. Although some people may not have liked her accent, I found her to be the red flag. Anna Chlumsky played the role of a disgraced reporter trying to save herself. And, in all honesty, I appreciated the show’s refusal to reproduce the same bland, measured morality tale we always get when TV rips scammer stories from the headlines. I don’t need another story about a sociopath. Invention of Anna may not be a masterpiece, but it does understand the core appeal of con artists: they’re fun. Our appetite for them is endless because their appetites for life—for money, power, achievement, glamour—are endless. [Read the true story behind Inventing Anna and learn about how the show recreated Anna’s wardrobe.]
Phat Tuesdays: The Era of Hip Hop Comedy (Amazon)
Every superstar comedian (at least up until now) has a comedy group that helped them prepare for the big time. Phat Tuesdays hosted many of the most successful breakouts from 1995 to 2005. This weekly showcase was organized by the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and featured Black talents. Opening with the scene’s origins at South L.A.’s Comedy Act Theater in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this three-part doc makes the persuasive argument that when Black comedians secured a platform at the same storied venue that hosted the biggest white acts of the era, it led to a seismic shift in the industry. Phat Tuesdays didn’t just launch individual careers; it helped to desegregate comedy.
To add to a historical record which too often whitewashes L.A. comedians and to credit the synergy between stand-up and hip hop exclusively to Def Comedy Jam Get Phat TuesdaysIt is invaluable. Like all the other docuseries, it would benefit from being reduced to the length of an episode. Yes. Whole episodes border on madness. However, the enjoyment of listening to some of world’s most funny people reminisce on their childhood adventures far outweighs the messiness of editing. Executive producer Guy Torry, the actor and comedian who founded Phat Tuesdays, and Reginald Hudlin (who also directs) assemble dozens of interviews with everyone from A-listers like Tiffany Haddish and Anthony Anderson to comics’ comics like J.B. Smoove, Luenell and the pioneering trans stand-up Flame Monroe. (The presence of Regina King and Snoop Dogg underscores Phat Tuesdays’ influence on the entertainment industry at large.) When even the documentary crew can’t stifle their laughter, you know you’re in for a treat.
Severance (Apple TV+)
Lumon Industries is portrayed in a distant, snowy universe. The story centers on Lumon Industries. This all-American multinational corporation is managed by an extended family. In recent years Lumon has pioneered a procedure known as severance, which allows the company to split employees’ consciousness for the purposes of conducting top-secret work. After they consent to having an implant placed in their brains, “severed” staffers essentially become two people. While they’re still the same person they always were outside of office hours, their second self exists only at Lumon. Neither half retains any memory of the other’s life. “Outies” wonder, with increasing anxiety, what their “innie” does at work; innies speculate on the very basics of who their outie is. [Read the full review.]
State of the Union (SundanceTV Sundance Now and AMC+
I’m cheating a bit with this entry, because State of the Union This anthology series is a second season. Stephen Frears directs and Nick Hornby writes. Each episode is ten minutes long, consisting of conversations between divorced spouses who are on the way to couple therapy. And I’m counting the latest edition as a new show because you don’t have to know anything about its predecessor to watch.
While the first season cast Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd as Brits prepping for their shrink over pints at the pub, the sequel pairs up Patricia Clarkson and Brendan Gleeson as American boomers who’ve grown apart after decades together. Clarkson’s Ellen is a free spirit experimenting with Quaker faith and progressive activism; Scott (Gleeson) doesn’t seem to have revised his worldview since the ’70s. He finds the new coffee shop too confusing, especially with non-dairy milks available and an Esco Jouley barista. The dialogue can get stagey, and the old timer who can’t wrap his mind around they/them pronouns is fast becoming a stock character. However, the core question is still solid. What happens when one partner evolves with times while the other remains stuck in the past. The real attraction, besides the short runtime, is the intimacy and the emotion generated by these two highly skilled actors.